……….Unknown and poor – simplicity’s reward / Ae night, within the ancient burgh of Ayr / By whim inspir’d, or haply prest wi’ care, / He left his bed, and took his wayward route, / And down by Simpson’s wheeled the left about:
These are lines from Robert Burns poem “The Brigs Of Ayr” and I start with them for three reasons – I want to write about Robert (and I admit I think of him with that kind of close, almost filial familiarity, that I feel I can call him by his first name only!), secondly I want to write a little about Ayr (Auld Ayr whom ne’er a toon surpasses / for honest men and bonnie lasses) and thirdly no thoughts about Burns would ever be complete with referring to a pub (the ‘Simpsons’ referred to in the poem was a pub by the Auld Brig in Ayr!)
The prompt for writing this post actually came from a recent post I read on Book Snob’s blog in which she shared her unfettered joy at having secured a place to do teacher training and fulfil her ambition of becoming a teacher. It got me thinking about my own teacher training, in the early 1980’s and what drove me to choose to leave home and train at Craigie College in Ayr. My reasons weren’t as laudable as Rachel’s! One reason was predictable – a friend told me Ayr had lots and lots of great pubs! One reason was shameful – the college where I trained had the highest proportion of female students to male students in Scottish further education and I liked girls!
And one reason was fanciful – Ayr was the birthplace and home of Robert Burns, the Bard as we Scots think of him. And I loved Robert, his poetry and everything about him (at that age even Robert’s love of drinking and women suited me to a tee!). So I chose it because I had dreamy notions of walking on the cobbled streets where Robert had been, seeing spires and hills and rivers he’d seen and of course sitting with friends in many, many, taverns where he’d once sat with his cronies! So I lived in Ayr’s pubs, tried to chat up Ayr’s female population and when I ran out of money for the former and was struggling for success with the latter, I retreated to wonderful Alloway, to Burns Cottage where he grew up, and to the surrounding area! Wonderful times!
I got into the poetry of Burns at school, having been first nudged, then pushed, then dragged kicking and screaming towards it by my then English teacher Mrs McFarlane (known affectionately as Ma Biscuit!). I soon fell in love with Robert’s poetry, the stories of his life and of course all the folklore surrounding him. He really did have that rock-star-rebel-lived-hard-died-young sheen to him that was so attractive to me at that age. I eventually borrowed a copy of his poetry from the school library and then promptly “left it on the bus” ahem, ahem! (I didn’t have much money and so ‘acquired’ several books I loved this way! I still have books today with “Greenock Academy” stamped inside them!). And from there I was hooked!
Burns’s poetry has been reviewed and discussed by academics, writers, journalists and politicians over the years and so I won’t be naive enough to attempt to review it here for that’s far too well trodden a path. Instead I’ll simply set out why I like it and what it means to me.
Burns is the ultimate in ‘working-class man’ made good in so many ways. He had that ability to take the peasant culture of songs and tales and turn it into the most beautiful and articulate literature. It was an ability that screamed out genius, and he’s certainly lauded as this now, and was in the later years of his life. But there’s that contrast between the charismatic, witty and clever Burns we celebrate, and his flaws as a man – to say he had a complex love life is putting it mildly! His love poetry is probably the thing for which he is best known but there’s so much more to him. Some of it is the celebration of man’s love for his fellow man, and some of it is in the unambiguous way he wears his political heart very much on his sleeve – and I so admire that. And of course, underpinning all of this, Burns to me epitomises Scotland and the Scottish culture, warts and all, and I think he’s the foundation of much of Scottish writing and song even today. We are, I believe, a nation who collectively and individually have punched above their weight (if you want proof there’s a great little parochial, patriotic book called “How The Scots Invented The Modern World”!) and nobody “punches above their weight” more than Robert does – the son of a ploughman who rose to become the greatest Scottish writer of all time, a worldwide literary phenomenon that has lasted to this day, and someone who is to me and countless others the equal of Shakespeare in many ways.
I’ve recently been fortunate enough to get hold of several biographies and studies of Robert’s life and work and I’m looking forward to reading and then writing about them. But I think two stories captures the magical charisma of Robert perfectly.
He wrote a song about one of his drinking friends, Willie Stewart, and as I’ve written before that’s my Dad’s name so it has an extra resonance for me! The lyrics were then adapted by Eddi Reader and Molly Rankin and in one wonderful verse in particular the song is provocative, very funny, and very Robert. It describes the all-wonderful Willie Stewart:
“A flower, it grows, it fades, it falls / And nature cannot renew it / But worth and truth, eternal youth / We’ll gie to Willie Stewart / And may she whose arms / will enfold thy charms / posses a loyal and true heart / To her be given, tae ken’ the heaven / She holds in Willie Stewart!”
The second story is, to me, the most romantic of tales.
A young woman in Edinburgh, Agnes McLehose, fell head over heels in love with Robert when she saw him perform in Edinburgh. Burns was equally in love with Agnes and they conducted a passionate love affair through letters and snatched meetings (to disguise their identities he was known as Sylvander and she was known as Clarinda). But Agnes had married young and though essentially abandoned by her husband (who’d gone off to make his fortune in the slave trade) the conventions of the time meant that they could not be together and she remained living with and dependent upon her middle class family. But she never fell out of love with the ploughman’s son. At the time Agnes was in her late twenties and Robert was in his mid-thirties. They split up – in no small part due to Robert’s other sexual conquests – and they last saw each other on December 6th 1792. Not long after they last saw one another, Robert died aged only 36, in Dumfries. Agnes lived on for many years in Edinburgh, till well into her eighties. After she died, her family found the diary she’d kept for around sixty years. And in it, every single year on December 6th, she wrote “Today was the last time I saw Robert!”
And that’s the essence of what Robert means to me – romantic notion that it is, he’s just so unique and special that whatever mistakes he made in his life, you can’t help but love him, his work and everything about him!
If you’re interested you can learn more about Robert Burns at a great BBC site, which includes a number of archived readings of his poetry, there’s a National Trust site about his birthplace which is of course a fabulous museum, and there’s a kind of cornucopia of everything Burns at the Robert Burns Country site.